In February I traveled to Turkey to visit the sites of several early Christian churches. I’ve been posting since then about those churches and their cultural context. Most recently, I wrote about the ways in which the churches to whom the book of Revelation is addressed were pressured to compromise with the surrounding culture. This post will look at how other first century churches responded to societal pressures. In Divine Honours for the Caesars: The First Christians’ Responses, Bruce W. Winter reviews the challenges and the church’s response in several local situations, as revealed in the New Testament and in contemporaneous historical sources. I’ll briefly describe three such situations.

When the apostle Paul first visited Corinth, the Jewish leaders opposed him and tried to bring a criminal case against him before Galio, the procounsul of the province of Achaea. However, as described in Acts 18:12-17, Galio indicated that this was an internal Jewish matter. That response meant that the Christian assembly in Corinth was considered a Jewish gathering. That matters because those who lived in the area were expected to participate in the cult of emperor worship. Jews were exempted from participation in veneration of the emperor, and Galio’s ruling extended that exemption to Christians. Still, some Corinthian Christians apparently participated in feasts at the imperial temple; this seems to be what Paul is talking about in I Corinthians 8. They were tempted both to enhance their social standing and to eat well:

“It is understandable, given the prestige and the sheer extravagance of such celebrations, that some Christians whose social status entitled them to participate rationalized their participation…” Winter, p.225

Compromise isn’t always due to persecution; carrots as well as sticks can motivate it.

Winter also describes the situation in Galatia, a region of Asia Minor visited by Paul during his first missionary journey. He later wrote a letter to the Galatians to challenge a group within the church–the Judaizers–who were trying to convince Gentile converts that they needed to be circumcised and follow ceremonial aspects of the Torah. The dispute between legalism and faith was a theological one but also had practical implications for living in the local setting. Whereas in Achaea Christians were considered to be Jews and thereby were granted an exemption from the requirement that they perform ritual sacrifice to the Roman gods and the emperor, the status of Christians was more ambiguous in other provinces, and thus there was more risk of persecution. This seems to be what Paul was referring to when he wrote in Gal. 6:12 about the motivation of the Judaizers:

” As many as are wanting to make a good showing in the flesh, these are attempting to compel* you to be circumcised, only so that they will not be persecuted for the cross of Christ.” (LEB)

Winter suggests that circumcision would make a “good showing in the flesh” in that those circumcised would be seen by society as having become Jewish–after all, they had acquired the fleshly mark that distinguished Jewish males. And if all the male Gentile converts underwent circumcision, the church as a whole would be insulated from legal sanctions:

“The results of this masterful solution proposed and so strongly promoted by some Galatian Christians, if accepted, meant that all Christians in Galatia had a legal status in the eyes of their fellow citizens. They would be considered Jewish either by birth or by proselytisation. They would be exempt from having to give divine honours to the Caesars and participation in other events that Rome had so skilfully linked into cultural events.” . Winter, p. 248

The problem was that this strategy for avoiding persecution was in effect a denial of a core component of the gospel message–that salvation doesn’t come through obedience to the law but by God’s grace extended to those who put their trust in Christ. It must have taken considerable courage to reject the false teaching of the Judiazers when doing so made one vulnerable to being prosecuted by the Roman authorities.

Agora in Perga, a city Paul visited after founding churches in Galatia

The book of Hebrews also alludes to ways that the surrounding culture created hardship for Christians. Again, the issue is that, by not expressing veneration for the gods and the emperor, the Christians aroused suspicion that they were subversive. David deSilva explains the public’s view as follows:

“Worship of the deities was something of a symbol for one’s dedication to the relationships that kept society stable and prosperous. By abstaining from the former, Christians (like the Jews) were regarded with suspicion as potential violators of the laws and subversive elements within the empire.” (Perseverance in Gratitude: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on the Epistle “to the Hebrews,” p. 12)

In the past, this attitude toward Christian converts had resulted in harsh measures being directed against them. The sufferings they had endured are catalogued in Heb. 10:32-34:

“Remember those earlier days after you had received the light, when you endured in a great conflict full of suffering. Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution; at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated. You suffered along with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions.”

Winter indicates that the public insult the author refers to typically occurred at the local theatre. The person or persons to be so exposed would be put on stage and subjected to degrading comments from the audience. The purpose would be to shame the victims into complying with societal expectations. Such episodes also provided entertainment for the crowd. The “persecution” here could well have been public floggings. For some, humiliation was followed by imprisonment. Roman prisons didn’t provide the inmates with any sort of provision, so the situation of an incarcerated Christian was dire unless their faith community came to their aid. Finally, their property could be seized by the authorities. Roman law stated that “the property of those who ought to be accused, or have been caught committing a crime, or who have killed themselves should be confiscated.” (quote from Winter, p. 274)

Christians could be charged with the crime of not participating in ritual worship of the emperor. They could also be charged with meeting together regularly. Legislation under Augustus had forbidden all associations from meeting more than weekly. Jews were granted exemptions from both these laws, but it was under the discretion of the local governor as to whether Christians were considered Jews. The prohibition against frequent meetings puts the author’s admonition that they not neglect to meet together (10:24) in a rather ominous light!

So the consequences that the recipients of the letter to the Hebrews faced as a result of their faith were worse than those faced by the Corinthian Christians, and probably also than those faced by the Galatians. Still, there hadn’t been any martyrs yet in among the recipients (12:4). They endured their initial persecution. Would they continue to endure the hardships that come with being members of a reviled minority, though? Winter thinks that another, even more shameful and disruptive threat may have awaited some of them–exile. That might be the meaning of the suggestion that the hearers go to Jesus “outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore.” (13:13) Persevere, says the writer of the letter, and you will receive your reward. That is a message that heartened the followers of Christ throughout the ages. It’s by God’s grace that enough managed to persevere despite the terrible cost they bore.


I’ve been writing about a recent trip to Biblical archaeological sites in Asia Minor (current-day Turkey). I’ve written about the architectural features of Greek and Roman cities and about Roman religion, including the cult of emperor worship. It wasn’t until I returned that I realized something was missing from first-century Asia Minor. This was occupied territory at the time but there wasn’t much evidence that there had been a military presence–no soldier’s barracks, armories, or other military installations. At the time, there was no Roman legion stationed in the area. The situation was quite different from Palestine, which had a strong occupying force. According to Richard A Horsley, who edited Paul and Empire: Religion and Power in Roman Imperial Society, there wasn’t even a bureaucracy in place to ensure compliance with Roman policies. So what controlled the populace?

There’s no need to exercise control over people if those people are controlling themselves, and it seems that’s what happened. The historian renowned for explaining how this happened was S.R.F. Price; his thesis was described in Rituals and Power: The Imperial Cult and Asia Minor (1984). The highly civilized Hellenistic cities of the region had succumbed under the onslaught of Roman power. For centuries before, they had a tradition of venerating local rulers who had been benefactors of their cities. These royal cults were associated with religious worship–the honor given to benefactors was similar to the honor given to the ultimate benefactors, the gods. The emperor received the same sort of treatment, and it didn’t take much to go from ‘the emperor is like a god’ to ‘the emperor is a god.’ After all, in polytheism there’s always room for more divinities. And worshiping the emperor gave people a sense of meaning and identity that had been lost to them when they came under Rome’s control. As Horsley explains,

“Since the subject peoples cannot change the dominant order, they need to justify, perhaps even want to glorify that order and articulate their own place within it.” p. 24

Sites for emperor worship were typically located outside Rome, not in Rome itself. It was usually not the emperor who took the initiative in establishing shrines, temples, and festivals in his honor but the local elites, who had an interesting relationship with the Roman authorities. Roman power  was exercised not via administrators but through a complex web of patron client relationships. Your patron protected and helped you; you were obliged in turn to praise and honor him. The emperor was the ultimate patron; local cities and aristocrats were his clients. What better way to honor your patron than build a temple or conduct a festival in his name? The elites competed for the opportunity to underwrite such elaborate demonstrations of veneration for the emperor. Here, for example, are the remains of a large fountain building erected by Ephesian bigwig Tiberius Claudius Aristion and his wife in honor of the goddess Artemis and Emperor Trajan:

And religious activities such as worshiping the emperor weren’t cordoned off from the rest of life. Those of us familiar with the separation of church and state, or even those from nations that have a state church, can’t fully appreciate how intertwined religion was with public affairs. At the theatre there were statues to the gods, including the emperor. The same was true if you shopped at the agora or visited the baths. An excerpt from Prince’s book reprinted in Horsley’s volume points out how the upper square of Ephesus, redesigned during the reign of Augustus, was built so as to foster emperor worship. For example, between the magistrate’s office (where the sacred fire to Hestia burned) and the small auditorium where the city council met, there was a temple dedicated to Julius Caesar (or perhaps Augustus: scholars are uncertain):

Another example of the intrusion of the imperial cult in public spaces is a the large statue of Hadrian outside the baths in Aphrodisias:

It was a mark of divinity that Hadrian was portrayed naked and with an idealized male form.

There were regular feasts and festivals designed to give divine honor to the emperor. Spectacles were held in his name. Bruce Winter, in Divine Honors for the Caesars: The First Christian’s Responses, indicates that gladiatorial contests and animal fights were almost always organized by the high priest of the imperial cult. Winter also provides a calendar from the early first century giving the high and holy days to be celebrated by the populace. Most of the days listed called for some sort of veneration of the emperor. Here is the calendar for January:

January 7      On this day Caesar first took the fasces.

January 16    On this day Caesar was named Augustus. Supplicatio to Augustus.

January 30    On this day the altar of Peace was dedicated. Supplicatio to the imperium of Caesar Augustus, Guardian of the Roman Empire.

What will you do, then, if you’re a gentile convert to Christianity and your trade guild holds a feast in which the food has been sacrificed to the emperor? Or what if there’s a procession honoring the emperor going past your house and everyone along the route is expected to offer a sacrifice in the great one’s honor? What if you’re asked to proclaim that Caesar is god and lord? You can’t cite separation of church and state–there’s no such concept. Nor is there such a thing as religious freedom. It’s your duty as a good citizen to take part. The peace and stability of the empire depends on the devotion of its people, so to refuse is to undermine the well-being of society (or so everyone believes). What will you do?